Thom Archer feels that something very special is beginning to grow
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an easy enough transition; fine dining tasting menu to casual small plates-slash-a la carte offering. Tommy Banks - off the telly - is the brains behind The Black Swan at Oldstead, which serves Michelin-star fine dining in a pub, and recently picked up the accolade of Trip Advisor's “Best Restaurant in the World”.
Safe to say he has that nailed - so surely he just needs to increase the portion size of those tasting menu mouthfuls a bit for starters, and a bit more for mains and he’s done. Thank you, next.
It’s as if a McDonalds hash brown shagged one of the building’s mock-Tudor wooden beams and gave birth in a deep fat fryer
It’s not quite that easy though. For the most part, Roots is a successful sibling of the Banks family’s flagship venture, but certain things have been lost in translation. That can be forgiven, though, when it’s got so much to say.
Let’s unpick that name. Roots, along with its crimson blotch logo, suggest a tribute to a trademark dish that’s made the journey over from Olstead; crapaudine beetroot (£10). Thick-skinned and toadish in appearance, a cross-section of it is softened up and made all loveable thanks to being cooked in beef fat until fudgey, and dressed up as a Black Forest gateau with smoked cod’s roe and pickled beetroot.
“Roots” as “a thing” is also a holistic PR exercise that juuust about falls short of feeling contrived. A cookery book of the same name and authored by chef Banks came out a couple of months before the restaurant opened (“you’ve read the book, now visit the gift shop!”). The branding is very, very slick, right down to the infographic wine lists (main image) that educate the reader into hopefully choosing something from the pricier end. Luckily, due to the modular nature of the menu everything’s available by the 125ml glass, allowing a little room for experimentation (it’s unlikely we would’ve taken a punt on a whole bottle of Yorkshire Ortega or Txakoli).
Roots is also a statement of intent. Tommy’s going back to his roots, and cooking food inspired by the land around him, his family’s farming heritage (Grandma Mary gets a name check for her apple cake), and self-sufficiency. Even bao (£10), that trendy, explicitly not-Yorkshire steamed bun is entrenched in this philosophy; slow cooked lamb belly is coddled by a bun that glistens like a suet dumpling, along with pungent fermented turnip. It’s a bit of Taiwan-Yorkshire fusion that nods to the shared DNA of dumplings everywhere.
At times service feels a little clunky. We arrive absolute drenched and get led upstairs to the bar. Coats off, we ask where the bathroom is, to go and wring out our hair. Back down we go. Up at the bar again we order drinks (Burnt tomato margarita - banging), take the first sip, and right on cue get invited to take our seats, back downstairs. The staff are all so nice that you don’t feel put out by it, but at times you feel like an inconvenience.
People like me (and maybe you) who get nerdy over restaurants, research and memorise menus and rehearse ordering in front of the bathroom mirror will already know the concept of Roots’ menus. Maybe it was my air of sophistication, or perhaps my heaving gut and the Pepperami I keep behind my ear like a carpenter’s pencil, but I didn’t receive the full menu spiel, which is a shame, because it's a strong and admirable spiel.
Seasonality’s the name of the game, but the Roots calendar recognises just the three seasons: The Preservation Season, The Hunger Gap and The Time of Abundance, each sounding like an instalment of a gritty trilogy, but representing and reacting to various phases of agriculture.
We're currently in the Preservation Season, which means leftovers from The Time of Abundance tweaked or transformed by pickling or fermenting, while more evergreen produce is embellished and elevated.
Apples are preserved in a sauce which gives sweetness to a doughnut (£7.50) - an actual doughnut, made of fried, sweetened bread - which they then stuff with smoked eel cream, and by proxy, all the despicable joy of streaky bacon and maple syrup.
There’s a bowl of kale (£5.50) that brings a clatter of contrasting flavours from across the whole dynamic range, from searing high notes of sheep’s yoghurt to murky, vegetal depths of kale, and cured duck egg yolk, grated so that its bright yellow wisps look like processed guilty-pleasure cheddar. It’s divisive and nobody’s favourite dish of the meal, but the mix of textures keep luring our forks back until the bowl’s empty.
Everything we eat from the small plates section is so perfectly formed, delicately straddling a tightrope between well considered and overworked, that the larger plates can’t help feeling a little anti-climatic.
Skirt steak (£17.50) is fine, with the right level of heat applied for the right amount of time to become as good as skirt steak can be. But OH MY GOD the spuds that it comes with, it’s as if a McDonalds hash brown shagged one of the building’s mock-Tudor wooden beams and gave birth in a deep fat fryer. I get distracted thinking of the Jenga tower I could build.
Similar story with the Thornback ray wing (£17.50); great bit of fish cooked flawlessly but following dishes with enough concentrated flavour to dislocate your jaw, we’re left wanting something more. This is, after all, a restaurant where bread - a single slice of it - is elevated to greatness (not to mention a £5 price tag) by the inclusion of Lincolnshire Poacher custard along with the butter.
I don’t want to detract too much from what the team has accomplished here, because not one dish falls short. But there is a nagging sense that we could have enjoyed certain dishes even more, given the technique, flair and attention to detail afforded to the smaller plates.
Still, with Roots now firmly bedded in, you do feel that something very special is beginning to grow.
Roots York, 68 Marygate, York YO30 7BH.
Follow Thom Archer at @thomarcher
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Bread 8.5, eel doughnuts 9, kale 7.5, lamb bao 8.5, beetroot 8.5, Thornback ray wing 7, skirt steak 8.5, apple cake 8
Made the most of a tricky building, creating several intimate dining rooms around an intriguing open kitchen.
The kind of friendly service where you leave with the information that your waiter's grandad was an eel fisherman in Norway.